How To Pack A Suitcase - The Ultimate Guide

If you live out of a suitcase like I do, it’s pretty crucial to learn how to pack a suitcase (properly!).

If you learn how to pack a little more strategically, you can make the most of your suitcase space with plenty of room leftover! Below, you can find my guide on packing the right way: tips on how to pack your suitcase more strategically, how to choose the best luggage, TSA questions and what you can/can’t bring with you on your trip, and my free packing checklists!

 
 

How to pack a suitcase efficiently:

Bring a small suitcase:

We’ve all been there- you decide to pack your suitcase at the last minute. Instead of being organized about the whole ordeal, you decide to just bring a huge suitcase instead and throw in whatever clothing you can think of (okay, maybe this is just me…?).

It seems that the bigger your suitcase, the more you end up adding to it. The best way to avoid this situation altogether is to:

  1. Pack ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute and tempted to bring a bigger suitcase.

  2. Purchase a hard-shelled suitcase that can double as a carry-on (no more than 22 inches tall) so that you aren’t tempted with the “Just in case I need it” mindset.

Lay out what you think you'll need, then re-evaluate

Do you really need that excessive, Carry Bradshaw-style tutu skirt that you think would look perfect on your Instagram feed? Chances are, probably not. Try to pack what you think you’ll need, then re-evaluate and downsize even further. After five months of traveling with only one small suitcase, I have definitely come to realize what clothing pieces are simply unnecessary. Those dresses that wrinkle easily? Or that trendy outfit that takes up half of your suitcase? Don’t bother packing them in your suitcase- trust me on this one.

 
 

how to pack a suitcase to maximize space:

Here area a few of my best strategies for effective packing:

  • Fill every single inch of unused space with your smallest items! Add small items such as socks and accessories to zippered pouches, compartments and even your shoes- don’t leave any corner of your suitcase untouched!

  • Roll your clothes! Not only is rolling your clothing the best way maximize suitcase space, it also reduces wrinkles and creases big time!

    • how to roll clothes for packing:

  1. Lay your clothing out flat.

  2. Begin rolling into cylindrical shapes.

  3. Make sure to pack rolled clothing tightly to prevent unraveling onboard.

  • Bring packing cubes to help keep your clothes compact and your outfits organized. I had never previously used packing cubes and finally decided that (based on my last trip) it was time to get more organized when packing my suitcase. I recently purchased this set of packing cubes, and I am so incredibly excited to start using them. The kit includes a number of lightweight, yet sturdy packing cubes that cover all of the travel essentials you could possibly dream up!

How to keep your clothes clean:

Consider adding a few small tote bags to your packing list for the following strategies:

  1. Place your shoes inside of the tote bags to keep your clean clothes protected from any dirt that might collect throughout your travels. Alternatively, you could place your shoes in a shower cap for this method.

  2. Use the tote bags to add in any dirty laundry that you want to keep separated from your clean clothing.

  3. Unrelated to keeping your clothes clean (sorry), but you could also use the bags to store any souvenirs purchased on your trip!

Keep liquids in easy reach near top of suitcase

If you are planning on bringing a carry-on suitcase, it’s wise to keep your toiletries or any other liquids near the top of your bag. The same goes for your personal bag- place any and all liquids in a separate, travel-friendly bag that is within easy reach. This is so you don’t have to hassle with unnecessary complications once you get to airport security.

Travel toiletries: Keep them separate, and don’t unpack

Keep your travel toiletries (i.e. makeup, toothpaste, etc.) separated from your other packed items in a kit or packing cube- this ensures that you can easily access the container the day of your flight, without having to dig back in your suitcase and create a disaster in the process. I have definitely been there- trust me, you’re better off avoiding the situation.

Also remember to double-bag your toiletries, if you can, in order to prevent leakage!

 
 

How to choose luggage:

Truthfully, there are an overwhelming amount of suitcase options available online. So how are you possibly supposed to choose?!

There are 3 essential categories of bags, each of which depend on your reason for travel: carry-on suitcase, checked baggage and a duffle bag. I’ve included a few of the most important factors to look for in your next carry-on/checked-in suitcase purchases:

spinner vs roller luggage:

Some suitcases have two wheels, others have four. Some roll backward and forward, others can spin in any and every direction- these are called “spinner” suitcases. While it’s completely your preference, I would highly suggest investing in a spinner suitcase- these are by far the easiest to travel with (and hey- they’re pretty fun, too!).

hard vs soft luggage:

Hard suitcases will protect your belongings from serious damaging, but do not typically have a great longevity. The hard-shelled covers can crack and become scuffed up easily (particularly when being tossed around often by baggage handlers). Hard suitcases will also limit how much you can pack in your suitcase.

Alternatively, soft-shelled suitcases will not protect your belongings, but do have a better longevity (as you won’t face the issue of a cracked suitcase). Soft suitcases also don’t limit you as much on the amount you can pack; just opt for the good ol’ sit-on-the-suitcase strategy and hope for the best (just kidding, kind of).

After my recent 5-month trip with a soft-shelled suitcase, I’ve realized that hard-shelled suitcases are more suitable for my travel needs. Because I tend to pack too much, I need a bag that restricts the amount I can pack for my trip (otherwise, I will go overboard). I know that a hard-shelled suitcase would do the trick, which is why I’m opting for one on my next trip. Again, however, this is completely your preference! Weigh the pros and cons and decide which option is most suitable for your travel needs.

weekend trip vs long travel journey:

The type of bag you choose will ultimately depend on the length of your travel journey. For a weekend trip, you may just want to bring a carry-on bag and a small purse or backpack. If you are traveling anywhere from 1-3 weeks, you might want to bring a small to medium-sized suitcase, along with your small personal item. For anything longer, you’ll want to bring a larger checked bag and a backpack or duffel bag. You may even consider bringing a carry-on suitcase or additional checked bag for your longer journeys.

 
 

Frequent traveler vs occasional traveler:

If you’re an always-on-the-go kind of traveler, you should probably invest in luggage that’s going to last you for years down the road. However, it’s important to factor cost into the equation: the more durable a bag, the higher price tag it will carry. This could mean spending upwards of $500 for a high-quality carry-on. The good news is that most luxury brands include a lifetime warranty, which makes your investment worthwhile. If you’re a less-frequent traveler, or aren’t quite as concerned about bag quality, you can get away with a fairly priced bag to get you through several years of wear-and-tear travel.

Best Checked In Luggage:

American Tourister Moonlight Spinner 24, Rose Gold:

This rose gold, hard-shelled suitcase features organized compartments for all of your small travel necessities! Mesh dividers, zipped pockets, you name it- this suitcase has you covered! Backed by a 10 year limited warranty (score!), you won’t need to worry about wasting your money if something goes wrong. And it even expands 1.5 inches to give you additional packing capacity (just in case you do pack a little too much in your suitcase!).

The American Tourister Moonlight Spinner features nifty little “spinner” wheels (hence the name) that rotate the bag 360 degrees around. Traveling with heavy luggage just became so much easier!

Specs:

  • Hard luggage exterior

  • Expands 1.5 inches for additional packing capacity

  • 24 x 16 x 11 inches

  • Includes organized compartments for any and all travel accessories

  • Features “spinner” wheels and push-button locking handles for ease of transport

 
American Tourister Moonlight Spinner 24, Rose Gold
American Tourister - Samsonite Corporation
 

Best Carry On Luggage:

Wenger Luggage Synergy Wheeled 16" Laptop Backpack Bag, Black/Grey, One Size:

This snazzy little carry on luggage piece features a Triple Protect padded 16” laptop sleeve (perfect for all you remote workers out there), along with a sturdy 12.9 inch tablet pocket. The Wenger Luggage Synergy is perfect for all of your organization needs; mesh sleeves, zippered pockets and any other compartments you could dream up for your travel essentials. This carry on bag includes a secure lock handle, easy-glide wheels and an anti-scratch lining. What more could you ask for, really?!

Specs:

  • Soft luggage exterior

  • Triple Protect 16 inch laptop sleeve and 12.9 inch tablet sleeve

  • 11.8 x 15.4 x 20.9 inches

  • Plenty of organization compartments for travel essentials (zippered pockets, mesh sleeves)

  • Features secure lock handle and easy-glide wheels

How to choose a duffel bag

The flexibility that duffel bags offer is one reason why they remain a popular choice for always-on-the-go travelers. Hikes, camping, skiing, safaris, road trips- you name it, your duffel bag has you covered. When choosing the best duffel bag, you should look for important features such as material, storage space and how much the bag can hold, and the main purpose it will serve (i.e. if you’ll be using it for sporting equipment or as just an all-around travel bag).

My recommendation for best duffel bag:

Herschel Supply Co. Unisex Novel Black Crosshatch/Black One Size:

This nylon-lined duffel bag, designed by Herschel Supply Co., is the perfect luggage choice for a weekend getaway! Offering spacious compartments for travel accessories and an adjustable shoulder strap for ease of travel, this duffel bag is something out of a travel lover’s dream! Heck, this sturdy bag even includes a shoe compartment on the side! Talk about optimizing space.

Backed by a limited lifetime warranty (score!), you won’t need to worry about saying goodbye to your pretty little duffel bag if something goes wrong. Thank you, Herschel Supply Co.!

Luggage Specs:

  • Limited lifetime warranty

  • Soft luggage exterior; polyester shell, nylon lining

  • Spacious compartments for any and all travel necessities

  • Shoe compartment attached

  • Features secure and adjustable shoulder straps for convenience

Baggage Allowance:

checked baggage allowance

Checked-in suitcases typically range from 24-30 inches in size, and the weight will depend on your chosen airline (usually somewhere between 40-50 pounds for domestic travel). As a general rule, try to choose a suitcase that’s 28 inches or less. This is to minimize the chance of your bag being overweight- no one likes those pesky baggage fees!

Checked Baggage Stats:

  • Standard checked luggage size (maximum): 27 x 21 x 14 inches

  • Standard checked luggage weight (maximum): 50 pounds

carry on baggage allowance

While there is typically no weight restriction for carry on baggage (international travel will vary), each airline does have a size restriction for bags taken onboard the aircraft. As a general rule, try to choose a carry on suitcase that’s 21 inches or less, as most airlines won’t allow for bags larger than 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

Carry On Baggage Stats:

  • Standard carry on luggage size (maximum): 22 x 14 x 9 inches

  • Standard carry on luggage weight: N/A, typically no weight restriction (however, international airlines will vary)

How many bags can I bring on a plane?

While Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doesn’t have an official limit on the amount of bags travelers can bring through airport security, you nonetheless will not be able to enter security with more than two bags: a carry-on suitcase and/or a personal bag such as a purse or small backpack.

 
 

Liquid restrictions on flights:

Liquid size of 3.4 ounces or smaller

Each individual liquid or gel container passing through security must be 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or smaller, according to TSA guidelines. If you need to bring a liquid container larger than this, you will have to pack it in your checked-in luggage unless it is medically necessary. For updated information, please feel free to visit the T.S.A. official website.

Quart Size Bag

You must pack each 3.4 ounce (or less) liquid container in a single, quart-sized, clear bag. Again, for updated information on liquid restrictions, please visit the T.S.A. official website.

Should I check my bag?

This is going to be your personal preference. While some travelers prefer to check their baggage, others find traveling with a carry-on to be the more suitable option. Not only does a carry-on suitcase save you some serious cash in baggage fees, it also eliminates the stress of lost luggage and saves you time at the airport.

With that being said, I typically will choose to check my baggage because of the advantages it offers:

  1. You can walk through the airport quickly and easily without feeling tied down.

  2. You don’t have to worry about rushing on-board to snag an overhead bin.

However, if you are worried about your bag getting lost, or you simply don’t feel like waiting for it at baggage claim among arrival, then you may want to refrain from checking in your carry-on suitcase.

Things you can’t bring on a plane:

TSA has a list of restricted items for both carry-on and checked baggage, such as flammable liquids and gels.

There are also a number of items that can go in checked baggage and not a carry-on, and vice versa. Here are a few examples:

Liquids over 3.4 ounces (100ml):

  • Checked bagged: Yes

  • Carry-on baggage: No

Sharp objects such as a knife or box cutter:

  • Checked bagged: Yes

  • Carry-on baggage: No

Razors:

  • Checked bagged: Yes

  • Carry-on baggage: Varies; disposable razors are allowed, razor blades or straight razors are not allowed

 
 

Self-defense items (i.e. pepper spray/mace):

  • Checked bagged: Varies; T.S.A. will allow for a 4 ounce container of pepper spray/mace if it meets certain guidelines. However, you will want to discuss restrictions with your airline prior to departure.

  • Carry-on baggage: No

Overweight Baggage:

how much do airlines charge for overweight baggage?

Overweight baggage fees will depend on the airline you are flying with. For domestic travel, airlines such as Delta will charge an overweight baggage fee of $100 each way for bags that are 51-70 pounds in size. If a bag is 70-100 pounds in size, a $200 fee will be assessed. Bags that exceed 100 pounds in weight cannot be checked in at all.

What happens if your luggage is overweight?

You have a few options if this occurs.

  1. Take out your heaviest items (i.e. shoes or jackets), and re-pack them into your carry-on luggage or a friend/family member’s bag who has more space.

  2. If your bag is overweight by more than 10 pounds, consider purchasing another bag at the airport and pay for a second checked bag. This can often be cheaper than paying for overweight baggage fees.

Travel Checklist:

Travel Clothing:

Try to stick with simple clothing pieces that you can mix and match throughout your travels. As much as you may want to stick that extravagant floral maxi-dress in your suitcase… you’re realistically only going to wear it once, so you may want to leave it behind.

Packing smarter and repurposing your outfits will help free up space for all of the items you will actually need for your trip. Here are a few ideas of basic clothing pieces you should add to your packing checklist:

  • 5-7 tops, which will depend on the weather and season for your travel destination, as well as your reason for travel (i.e. dressy vs. casual tops)

  • 3-5 bottoms, which will depend on the weather and season for your travel destination, as well as your reason for travel (i.e. dressy vs. casual bottoms)

  • 1-2 semi casual one-piece outfits (i.e. dresses or rompers)

  • 1-2 semi-formal/dressy outfits (i.e. a dress or suit)

  • 10-15 undergarments; I always go overkill with this, but you would probably be safe bringing 7-10 for a one-week trip

  • 7-10 socks/stockings/tights etc

  • 2 sets of exercise clothes if you plan on working out during your travels (but if we’re being honest here, my workout clothes are typically what I wear every single day because… leggings)

  • 2 sets of pajamas or sleepwear (don’t forget your favorite nightie!)

  • 1 lightweight rain jacket or other outerwear- gotta prepare for the worst!

 
 

Travel Accessories:

  • 3 pairs of shoes:

    1) A dressier pair such as high-heels or booties (depending on the weather of your travel destination)

    2) A comfortable pair such as sneakers/trainers/ workout shoes

    3) A more casual option for everyday use such as sandals, flip-flops, etc.

  • Sunglasses (don’t forget your sunnies! I’ve made this mistake too many times)

  • Any jewelry you need for your outfits- don’t bring expensive jewelry with you, though!

  • A voltage adaptor for international travel

Toiletries list:

For all toiletries, remember to pack appropriately based on your travel luggage of choice. If you’re only bringing a carry-on suitcase, make sure that your liquids meet all TSA restrictions! Don’t be that person who has to throw out everything once you arrive at airport security. Some of the items you may want to add to your packing checklist include:

  • Any dental supplies you’ll need for your travels- toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, etc.

  • Hand sanitizer!

  • Shampoo, conditioner, body wash and/or soap

  • Deodorant

  • Makeup and/or makeup remover

  • Hairbrush and any small accessories like bobby pins

  • Protective sunscreen

  • Face moisturizer/ cleanser and/or face wash

  • Body lotion

  • Razor and/or shaving cream

  • Hairspray or any necessary hair products

 
 

Travel Essentials:

  • All travel documents:

    1) Your government issued identification

    2) Passport if traveling internationally

    3) Printed boarding pass, if necessary

    4) Any additional copies of identification as necessary

  • Wallet, cash, credit cards, etc.

  • Mini first-aid and/or medical kit: bandages, pain reliever, etc.

  • Eyeglasses or contacts, if necessary

  • Any prescription medications or vitamins

  • Chargers for electronic devices (laptop, phone, tablet, etc.)

  • TSA approved toiletries

  • Headphones

  • Any valuables you need for your trip such as laptop or tablet

  • Camera – I bring my Canon 5D Mark III everywhere I go, along with my recent lenses, the Canon EF 35 mm f/1.4L II lens and the Canon EF 16-35 mm f/2.8 II lens!

  • Neck pillow and/or blanket

  • A change of clothes if necessary (for international travel)

  • Entertainment for flight: a good book, iPad/tablet, magazines, etc.

  • Small food or snacks: granola or energy bars, whole fruit, nuts, etc.

  • An empty water bottle to fill after security and use throughout your travel journey

  • Pen/ notebook

  • Melatonin or other sleep aid for international travel (fight the jet-lag!)

    • Speaking of- I seriously could not make it through an overnight flight without my Neuro Sleep drink! This tangerine flavored drink is vegan, gluten-free, non-carbonated and has 3mg of Melatonin to promote restful sleep! Crying babies on the overnight flight? No biggie- Neuro’s got you covered!

 
Neuro
 

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If you learn how to pack just a little smarter, you can definitely make the most of your suitcase space (with plenty of room leftover!). By following some of these suitcase packing tips listed above, you will be guaranteed to save time, money and stress on your next trip.

I would love to hear about YOUR helpful tips on how to pack a suitcase! Feel free to comment below if you use any of the tips listed above. Or if you have a personal favorite packing tip that isn’t listed, I would love to hear more about it in the comments.

 
 

*Disclosure; Some of the content above may contain affiliate links (at no cost to you). However, I would never recommend tools, apps or resources if I didn't use them and find them helpful myself.

Hi there! I’m Fallon. A Florida native who, after receiving my masters degree in the U.K., decided to nix the 9-5 path in search of something more. Now, I run my graphic and web design business straight from my laptop, all while traveling the world. I’ve now traveled to over 25 countries and have knocked some pretty big adventures off my bucket list… and I’m just getting started. Follow along my journey as I present tips, guides and resources on solo female travel, photography, videography, entrepreneurship & the crazy lifestyle of a digital nomad.